Monday, 29 May 2017

The Saga of the 'Unlucky' Tokomairiro Church Bell

The Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church and Bell Tower
[Source Google Maps]

Can a Church bell be unlucky? Well, the good residents of Milton in Western Otago in Southern New Zealand might once have thought so. This blog tells the story, or should that be saga, of the Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church bell at Milton. I would wager that no other church bell (being always intended for a house of God) is as well travelled, or has suffered as many indignities or misfortune as the afore-mentioned bell. Curious? Read on my friends...

A church, particularly a new Parish Church, naturally desires a bell. Bells have been part of the church since the earliest days of Christianity, 400AD to be precise. A Church bell would be rung to call parishioners to worship, to an event, or to celebrate special occasions, to be rung at an appointed hour of the day to set clocks and watches, to toll upon a mournful occasion, or even to alert the populace to an unexpected event such as a fire.

Mr John Gillies R.M., 1802 - 1871
Purchaser of the Tokomairiro Church Bell
[Source :  "The Founding of the Otago Settlement
- Its History and Development", 1898 

Our story begins in 1857 when Mr John Gillies, then Sherriff of the Province of Otago, Resident Magistrate and farmer at "Riversdale" Tokomairiro, desired to gift a bell to the new "Fairfax" Church. The church at Fairfax (being about a mile east of the present day Milton) and with seating for 250, had been opened for public worship on the 28th February 1857. Gillies is believed to have written to an associate in Britain (possibly his brother in law), a Scotsman and merchant by the name of McIndoe, to arrange for the casting of a bell which the latter ordered from "Stephenson" [also recorded as "Stevenson"], a foundry in Birmingham. Sometime later, and after being securely packed, the bell would then be sent down to London by the railway to await shipment.

On the 28th October 1857, and with the bell safely stowed as cargo on the 706 ton Liverpool registered 'Palmyra', the good ship carrying around 300 immigrants and under the command of Captain John Tierney, departed Gravesend on the Thames bound for Otago. After a rather protracted and no doubt tedious voyage of 105 days the 'Palmyra', along with its passengers and a considerable amount of freight, duly arrived at Port Chalmers New Zealand on the 19th February 1858. The voyage, other than grounding on a sandbank at Taiaroa Heads at the entrance to Otago Harbour and not being freed until the next high tide, appears to have been concluded without any major incident. A near disaster had however been averted in the Canaries after the lookout fell asleep at his post. A passenger, having gone up on deck to have a smoke, noticed the heading of the ship and the impending disaster. But the ship and bell had arrived safely in Otago. What could possibly go wrong?

For some very inexplicable reason, and despite the ship being in Dunedin for around six weeks, the bell was not landed, perhaps through "some oversight" or "a missing invoice". Another report dated 1914 states that "it was sent by mistake to another port and went Home again". There is no record of Mr Gillies or the parish being unable to uplift the bell, or did they even know it had arrived on this vessel? We do find Captain Tierney charged by John Logie, Collector of Customs at Otago, for having violated around forty different offences under the Passengers Act leading to the latter's appearance in court on the 25th and 26th February. While Tierney was convicted and fined £30 on three proven charges these were passenger related matters rather than relating specifically to freight.

By the 30th March 1858 the 'Palmyra' had arrived in Nelson to unload a large quantity of the original freight carried from London. On the 19th April the 'Palmyra', and still under the command of Captain Tierney, sailed for Sydney on her way back to London. But aboard remained Mr Gillie's bell. The 'Palmyra' departed Sydney on the 13th July, rounded Cape Horn on the 26th August, and was later reported by the Sydney papers as having arrived safely back in London on the 30th October 1858. A report that she had sailed home via China is unfortunately spurious, she had only "spoken to" a vessel returning from Hong Kong which is where the confusion may have arisen. Just eleven months later the 'Palmyra' would be wrecked off the coast of Peru on a voyage in ballast from Sydney to Callao but no lives were lost.

But safely landed back in England, the Church Bell would now be loaded as freight on the 473 ton barque "Henbury" which left Gravesend on the 23rd April 1859, primarily carrying freight valued at £15,000 to £20,000 and just 19 passengers. After an apparently uneventful voyage she arrived at Port Chalmers on the 20th August 1859. Surely nothing could go wrong this time?

After discharging some of the passengers the vessel would await customs clearance for its freight on the Monday morning. But meanwhile the crew obtained a quantity of grog and drank "to great excess" leading to altercations on board. At 3 o'clock in the morning the Chief Mate, who had been sleeping below in the aft part of the vessel was roused by the smell of smoke, discovering the sails and stores in the sail room were on fire. Nothing could be done to stem the ensuing fury of the flames. Scuttling her to extinguish the flames was not wholly successful as she was not deep enough in the water. A full court of inquiry could not determine the cause of the fire so no charges were able to be laid.

"The "Henbury", a Willis and Co. clipper, now lies on the beach at Port Chalmers a perfect wreck; the whole of her after part, as far as the main-mast, with cargo in the fore-hatch, if not of perishable nature, and not liable to be destroyed by water, may be saved; but we fear she and her cargo -which latter was mostly destined for this Port - will be a total loss."

Auction of Goods Salvaged from the "Henbury",
February 1860
[Source : Papers Past]

But had Mr Gillie's bell survived the fire and could it be retrieved? By January 1860 the blackened hull of the "Henbury", along with a considerable portion of her cargo, had been raised and refloated.  As luck would have it, for once, Mr Gillie's bell apparently survived the conflagration unscathed. But the freight recovered from the vessel would now be classed as "salvage" and no longer the property of the expected recipients. Providing the bell had been insured Mr Gillies would have received some recompense but as this is a private matter there is no record of this. Young & McGlashan of Dunedin thereafter sold items recovered from the ship with the remainder of the cargo and the sunken wreck being sold to Messrs James Macandrew & Co., presumably on behalf of the ship's insurers, being Lloyd's of London. Auctioneers James Paterson & Co, of Dunedin then sold the salvaged goods by public auction. 

But negotiations between Mr Gillies and the salvor "terminated favourably" thus the latter was able to reclaim his precious bell for an undisclosed but agreeable sum. There is no record exactly who Gillies reclaimed his bell from but consignees for the "Henbury" were requested to apply to "Young & McGlashan" to establish claims for any losses. A report from 1893 simply states that "it was put up for sale by auction as part of the salvage of cargo". The blackened hull of the "Henbury" was later offered as a storage hulk, serving this purpose until being broken up in 1897.

John Barnes Advertising his new
Freight Service to Tokomairiro, 21 Jan 1860
[Source : Papers Past] 

But safely landed, the bell was now entrusted to Mr John Barnes, a Dunedin City Councillor and contractor, who had recently commenced business as a carrier to the Tokomairiro. The bell had only 54 kilometers to travel to finally reach its final destination. But, as expected, nothing concerning the bell would go smoothly.

An article from 1882 notes that; "After some delay, the overland journey was commenced, and the bell was carried the length of Robert Dowie's [stockyard] in the East Taieri, beyond which from the condition of the roads, it could not be forwarded." Another correspondent gives us a good impression of the conditions encountered.

"It is impossible to convey by words a correct idea of what was then called the road to Tokomairiro. It was a series of holes, ruts, bogs, hills, dales, streams and rivers that were to be got over, through, or round, just as the sagacity of the driver could best devise... Many a time [the] animals were down to the girths in bogs, and the axle of the dray ... in constant peril of being upset, was frequently tearing away the tussocks... through the swamps."

As the condition of the road south of East Taieri was advised as being in even worse condition than that already traversed the bell would be forced to remain at Robert Dowie's "for a considerable time as the roads were hardly fit for traffic".

After several weeks, and presumably after the worst of winter had passed, Barnes returned to complete the contract. Succeeding in reaching the Taieri Ferry, the condition of the punt was such that it was not possible to ferry the heavy bell across the river. So another delay occurred until the punt could be put in a sufficient state of repair to safely carry the bell. It would be 1863 before the first bridge would be constructed here. But by the Spring of 1860, and only two and a half years late, the bell had at last finally arrived. As the Rev Thomas Burns, Dunedin's 'Founding Father', wrote upon his safe arrival in Otago in April 1848, Deo Laus! [To God Praise Be]

The Fairfax Presbyterian Church,
before the belfry was constructed
[Source : Tokomairiro Parish History, 1929]

After lying, "for a considerable time" at Mr Goodall's Accommodation House [the "Old Tokomairiro Hotel", which included a barn and stock yards], the bell, and at a cost of £75, would be placed in a small combined porch and belfry erected for this purpose adjoining the newly opened church at Fairfax. In a final indignity, and if this report from 1905 is to be believed [it is the only reference on this point], the bell was found to be too large to fit inside the slender belfry and four unsightly stays had to be built to support the four corners. Then finally, the bell could be used for its intended purpose, the summoning of the parishioners to worship.

In a history of the church published in 1882 the bell is recorded as having been officially rung for the very first time to celebrate Mr Barnes' nuptuals. This seems a little odd considering Barnes married Hannah Bell at the Episcopal [Anglican] Church in Dunedin, the ceremony taking place on the 15th July 1861. The date could be correct as we know the bell was not immediately erected at Fairfax but why would the bell be rung for Mr and Mrs Barnes? So, is this the end of the story? Again, no...

Due to an increase in population in the district and with Fairfax [today known as Tokoiti] no longer being in a central position, a new church was built on a half acre section gifted to the parish in a more convenient location in the town of Milton, a mile east of the site of the former church. The old church site was handed over to the trustees of the Fairfax Cemetery as an extension of their grounds. The new Tokomairiro Parish church, which opened for public worship in May 1863, was also of wood, but with a large and substantial square tower to accommodate the bell. But when it finally came time to hoist the bell up to its permanent position in the tower of the new church; "the weight of the bell and the strength of the wind were found too much for the strength of the edifice, consequently it had to be supported by... wooden buttresses."

The Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church and
substantial wooden bell tower, pre 1881
[Source : Tokomairiro Parish History, 1929]

It is recorded that the wind caught the tower "to such an extent that it swayed and caused the whole building to creak and groan." The sound was likened to that made by a wooden sailing ship in a heavy sea. A memorable storm in February 1864 shook the building to such an extent that it was thereafter required to be strengthened in a very substantial manner. This is probably when the "wooden buttresses" mentioned above were added.

A newspaper report dated the 30th October 1877 states that; "The weather during the end of last week was exceedingly boisterous, so much so, indeed, that serious fears were entertained as to the stability of that old landmark, the steeple of the Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church."    

But on the 4th September 1880 we are informed that; "The tower of the Tokomairiri Presbyterian Church has been taken down... The removal of the tower, we understand, has been effected to ensure safety in tempestuous times. The 'Herald' thinks the church is now a better looking building than it was when the heavy tower existed."

The parish history confirms that the bell was now "hung between three spars" in a temporary belfry. In October 1882 "The Otago Witness" informs us that, "It [the bell] has now been wagging there [at Tokomairiro] for twenty years, tolling faithfully at the desire of the clinkumbell [old Scottish term for bell ringer]". But our story has not yet ended for there is yet one more indignity.

Unfortunately, and in December 1888, the venerable and very well-travelled old bell, which had additionally suffered trial by fire and baptism by water, cracked whilst being rung one Sunday morning;

"The bell which has for so many years past summoned the Presbyterians of Tokomairiro to their kirk, suddenly became a dumb bell on Sunday, 9th inst. By some unaccountable means it got cracked, and just as no decent church would allow a cracked parson in the pulpit, so the cracked bell was ousted from the belfry. It could give at best an uncertain sound, as the prophet said, and would have none of it... Like grandfather's clock, it has stopped short, never to go again".

The "dumb" and "fractured" bell was then blamed for a small turnout at a Church [Deacon's Court?] meeting the same month during "the stormy weather", members having [rather conveniently perhaps?] forgotten due to "not hearing the usual reminder".    

The old bell would now be removed from its belfry and sent to the Dunedin foundry of A&T Burt (who had been casting bells since 1872) to be broken down, returned to molten metal in a furnace reaching at least 1,000 degrees centigrade, and then recast in a mold as a brand new bell. With incorporating the metal from the old bell at least something of the spirit of the former bell would live on, hopefully not with the bad luck though. The cost of recasting came to £18.0.4 [NZD$1,226.00 in today's values]

The Rev Dr Donald McNaughton Stuart of Knox 
Church, Dunedin, 1819 - 1894. Rev Dr Stuart 
opened the new Tokomairiro Church in 1889
[From my own collection, having been
found unidentified in a second hand shop]

Fortuitously, the new bell, after a "very successful recast", could be incorporated into the bell tower of the new 600 seat church ready for the dedication and opening of the Church by the above Rev. Dr. Donald M. Stuart on Sunday, the 13th October 1889. This sturdy English Gothic styled building, having been designed by the eminent architect Robert A. Lawson, and which survives today, would be constructed with Port Chalmers bluestone, a facing of Oamaru limestone for the mullions and windows, concrete foundations and base, and a slate roof. Even then the substantial construction of the building took account of the risk of earthquakes. The new 105 foot spire housing the bell would however be slightly truncated from the original planned height to keep overall costs within £3,000 The tender price of J & W Gore came in at £2,997

The "measured toll" of the Presbyterian Church bell was what first alerted the residents of Milton to the sad demise of Her Majesty Queen Victoria in January 1901. Another notable occasion, but for equally sad reasons, was the ringing of the Church bell upon a fire being discovered at the nearby Bruce Woollen Mills factory in the early hours of the morning of the 28th April 1901. A crowd soon gathered but as there was no fire brigade in the town no practical means could be taken to avoid the complete loss of the building and machinery, now placing the livelihoods of 100 employees at risk.

The use of the Presbyterian Church bell as a "fire alarm bell" had been publicly suggested as long ago as 1872, adding, "It might be made of great service, especially in the night time." Even by 1904 nothing had been done and a town fire bell was again suggested, "as at the late fire, when the alarm was given, the church bell used proved fruitless." It would be 1907 before a less than successful fire bell would be set up, thus releasing the Church bell back to regular use.

Today, the recast bell of 1888 still hangs in the 1889 bell tower, ever since having faithfully served duty to the Parish. And therein, we hope, ends the saga of the Tokomairiro Church bell. 

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- Te Ara, The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand
- The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 1966
- Heritage New Zealand / Pouhere Taonga
- Trove (National Library of Australia)
- Dunedin Public Library McNab Room
- Presbyterian Research Centre, Dunedin
- "Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church Milton, New Zealand. 75th Anniversary Souvenir : A History From the Arrival of Rev. W. Bannerman in 1854" (published 1929)
- "Our Heritage : The First Century of Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church, Milton, New Zealand 1854 - 1954" (published 1954)
- "The Founding of the Otago Settlement - Its History and Development", 1898 (from my own collection)
- "The Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905 (from my own collection)
- "Dr Hocken's Laptop Guide to the South", compiled by the Rev. JG Sinclair (from my own collection)

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